Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Random film review: I, Daniel Blake

Dir: Ken Loach | UK | 2016 | 100 mins.

England on celluloid is one of extremes: it's either Richard Curtis or Ken Loach. Real life is somewhere in between for most of us, hopefully. But a few lives are like a Richard Curtis film, far more, most likely, are like a Ken Loach film.

First off, I, Daniel Blake is an important and moving film, charting as it does the benefits hell of Geordie Daniel Blake, who is unable to claim Employment and Support Allowance following a heart attack. His doctor has found him unfit to work but a five minute Work Capability Assessment deems him fit and able, so he has to make a claim for Jobseeker's Allowance. This means he has to actively search for work and provide evidence, but he has to turn work down on the advice of his doctor.

Caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of benefit bureaucracy, what comes across is the seemingly intentional dehumanisation and humiliation of people caught in the benefits system, where through no fault of ones own – accident, loss, illness, redundancy – a person has to turn to the state for help and is treated like a number. What saves the film from being totally depressing is the spirit and humour of Daniel Blake (played by comedian Dave Johns) and his friendship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum of two from London, recently arrived in Newcastle.

I'm glad Ken Loach is making films, but too often find him didactic, his characters mere pawns to express his view on society. It seems hard to believe that, Blake, a man in his 50s with a decent job (carpenter) would never have used a computer or the internet before (though I realise we still live in a country where some people can't read or write). Hence we have a scene in the library where Blake puts his mouse against the computer screen to move the cursor, having never seen or used such a device in his life. Other elements verge on cinematic clich̩ РKatie turning to escort work, for example, rather than looking for work in a bar or shop.

At the risk of sounding facetious, the film sometimes came across as a DIY manual – how to heat your home with bubble wrap, tea lights and a flower pot, for example, and I was thinking (after a bit of internet training, natch) Blake should launch a YouTube channel of instructional videos. Seriously though, he could at least have set up a small carpentry business; it's a great skill to have, and very much in demand. If he did small projects (like his treasured mobiles, the only thing in his flat he wouldn't sell), it wouldn't have affected his heart. 

After it ended, I did imagine a Hollywood remake: Blake takes an Uzi into the job centre and guns everyone down, blows the building up and runs off to Mexico to live with Katie. But it's a Loach film, and there was no happy ending.

– 4/5

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